Archaeologists dig up Otago graves to piece together history

Researchers are digging up graves in the Otago town of Lawrence in an effort to learn more about the lives of its early settlers.

The town boomed during the 1860s gold rush, with an influx of European and Chinese miners whose bones could help solve a few mysteries.

It's a delicate dig for the archaeological team, who are excavating two cemeteries in Lawrence and exhuming the remains of early settlers.

Professor Hallie Buckley from Otago University's Anatomy Department says their findings will have a current day impact.

"[We're] attempting to forensically identify these people, and help living descendants find where their ancestors were."

The project is aimed at creating a clearer picture of life for those working on the goldfields. Skeletons and artefacts removed from the unmarked graves will help to piece together their stories, according to Dr Peter Petchey from Southern Archaeology.

"Obviously the clothing fragments relate to what they were wearing, the fashions of the time. And the coffin furniture relates to the funerary traditions, how they were buried."

The initial dig is happening on private land, which was once the town's original cemetery.

The local legend was that one person had been left behind when the old cemetery closed. However, the team here have already found eight bodies, including two infants.

The Lawrence dig has special importance for the Chinese community. Chinese miners and merchants were forced to live on the outskirts of town, and in death were consigned to the bottom of the cemetery.

"We hope to put the historical records straight," says Chinese community liaison Leslie Wong.

"That there are Chinese buried there in unmarked graves, and we also want to know if there are empty graves where Chinese have been removed and sent back to China."